The virtue of adaptability

You’re probably familiar with the distinction between foxes and hedgehogs — “the fox knows many tricks; the hedgehog knows only one, but it’s a good one.” Foxes are generalists, but hedgehogs are specialists.

I always sort of envisioned myself as a potential hedgehog. In many ways, the British system seems set up to produce hedgehogs — you apply to university in a specific subject, and students seem specialised relatively early in the secondary system compared to their counterparts in the US (the only other system I really know about, although I’ve seen a little of some others). And, of course, graduate education is specialised for everyone — as you continue, you know, as they say, more and more about less and less.  And I went through that system like everyone else; by the end, I knew a huge amount about a very specific topic.

But outside academia, I was pulled in the opposite direction. I work as a teacher and tutor, so I spend a lot of time being called on to talk about subjects I’m sometimes only passingly familiar with. Here’s the stuff I’ll be dealing with this week, purely on the history side (I also tutor kids in English):

  • The legislation of the Long Parliament.
  • Cleopatra VII and her impact on Roman politics.
  • Anti-war messages in the popular culture of the late 1960s.
  • The Arab-Israeli conflict (twice).
  • Daily life in the early and high middle ages.
  • The first Gulf War (maybe, time permitting).
  • The Amritsar massacre.

I’ve also been working on the podcast I co-host, and it’s been a similar experience. So far we’ve talked about:

  • Richard the Lionheart and the Crusades.
  • The middle ages in general.
  • Science and superstition in Renaissance Italy.
  • Magna Carta.
  • Experimental archaeology.
  • Arthurian legend.
  • The invasions of 1066.
  • The Jacobite rising of 1745.
  • Occultism, folk dance and pop archaeology of the 1970s.

I never know what I’m going to get asked — we don’t really script our show ahead of time — so I try to be prepared!

Now, on the one hand this is a lot of work. But on the other hand it’s definitely working out my “ginning up a subject quickly” muscles, which is a very useful thing. It also allows me to mentally justify buying books on pretty much whatever since they could one day be useful.


The virtue of adaptability

Everyone likes a story with characters, redux

So like every other dork in the world I have been listening lately to the hit musical Hamilton, which tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, the guy on the $10 bill. If you pay attention to this stuff, you will know that it is a huge hit, blends hip-hop with Broadway, yadda yadda. And, of course, it’s about a historical figure, which makes it particularly interesting to me.


Hamilton is particularly interesting because he’s one of those people where I think most people know who he was but I doubt any of us who aren’t really serious students of American history have a sense of what he was like, which is what the musical really appears to be about.

Now, me being me, and having a heart of stone, I like the political songs best. Obviously “The Room Where It Happens” is great, but I’m currently enjoying “Washington on Your Side.”

Let’s show these Federalists who they’re up against / Southern motherfuckin’ Democratic-Republicans! is a great line.

Of course, the play tends to elide much of its history — for instance, it has the Burr-Hamilton duel take place right after the 1800 Presidential election (which is also a fun song) rather than several years later. And this elision has some weird effects. For example, in “The World Was Wide Enough,” Burr sings:

Now I’m the villain in your history / I was too young and blind to see / I should have known, I should have known the world was wide enough / for both Hamilton and me

OK, fair enough, but I suspect “too young” is an artefact of casting a handsome actor in his mid-30s to play the part.


Burr, by contrast, was 48 at the time of the duel — something that the narrative of the play makes clear when Hamilton describes their “thirty years of disagreements.”

Anyway, I’m not nitpicking — that’s the nature of historical adaptation and telling a story that takes place over a long period. What are they gonna do, run off and subtly change the makeup every time they get the chance?

What I’m curious about is how this is going to affect public perception of Hamilton. In cases where there’s only really one work of popular media about a character, we often see that our sense of who that person was — and our sort of instinctive sense of whether we like them — comes from that portrayal. I think that goes double for someone like Hamilton, a guy who people kind of assumed was just another boring pillar of patriotic virtue.

The other really interesting thing about this is that the portrayal of Washington, as far as I can tell, is very much within tolerances: unbending moral rectitude, far-seeing concern, etc. Some things you can’t mess with.

I think that I’d like to see the early US done as some disastrous third-world post-independence shambles, which is what it must have looked like to contemporary British observers.

Everyone likes a story with characters, redux

What is it with the monkeys?

I picked up a bunch of Osprey books for cheaps in a local charity shop a few weeks ago, and I have been idly reading them over the break. So far the most interesting has been Turnbull’s book on ashigaru in feudal Japan. Very educational, but one section in particular caught my eye; it’s part of a call-up order sent in the mid-16th century:

All men from 15 to 70 years of age are ordered to come; not even a monkey tamer will be let off.

Now, if you also read my gaming blog you may recall that I mentioned a similar quote, this time in an ancient Egyptian context. Horemheb himself said:

As for those monkey-handlers who go around levying taxes in the South and North, extorting grain from the citizenry … My Majesty orders these to be suppressed entirely, to prevent them wronging persons by such fraud.

The author of the book I found it in commented:

The term ‘monkey-handler’ is not to be taken literally, but is probably the late Eighteenth-Dynasty equivalent of ‘shyster’. It goes without saying that the real handlers of monkeys can have done nothing to merit such an unjust reputation.

What is it with the monkeys?

What is it with the monkeys?

Movie Monday: Khartoum (1966)


The holidays are over, and we’re back with this hamtastic historical epic. It’s about the 1885 Siege of Khartoum, in which a Mahdist army laid siege to and eventually captured Egyptian-held Khartoum, killing the British officer, Charles Gordon, who was supposed to be evacuating the city but instead was effectively commanding its defense. Cue fourteen more years of war and a lot of heroic portrayals of Gordon, including this one.

And hoo boy is Gordon heroic. That’s what you’re aiming for when you cast Charlton Heston to play someone, and Chuck delivers, portraying Gordon’s doomedness as a form of messianic self-sacrifice but still making him charming and human.

And of course, every hero needs a villain, and what better villain than … er … Laurence Olivier in dodgy brownface with a ridiculous accent?

It was a different age, I get that, but I’m not saying that they should have looked at Olivier’s performance and thought the brownface was inappropriate, I’m saying they should have looked at Olivier’s performance and seen that it was ass.

I have to admit, I have only known a few Sudanese people, and of course regional accents do vary, but I am almost certain that no one from anywhere, let alone Sudan, has ever sounded like Olivier going “my belivvereds, I am the Machdi, forrretold by the priffir Mehurrmerd.” And there are some bits where he’s quite good and clever in his tent showdowns with Gordon, but everything about his ridiculous part is working against him.

Anyway, there are fights, camels, unconvincing effects, and some really splendid uniforms. It has an overture, which is always nice, and it’s on UK Netflix at the moment. It’s weird in a fascinating way, or maybe fascinating in a weird way.

I would say that I liked its portrayal of British imperial policy as a mess of contradictions and compromises rather than a noble crusade or a diabolical plot, but since that is essentially the whole story of what Gordon was even doing in Khartoum in the first place, it would have to have that or totally fail as a story.

Movie Monday: Khartoum (1966)